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How Dublin Inquirer’s neighbourhood noticeboard connected locals during COVID-19
This case study is part of Resilience Reports, a series from the European Journalism Centre about how news organisations across Europe are adjusting their daily operations and business strategies as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
In a nutshell
A neighbourhood noticeboard enabled over 100 volunteers to offer their services to less fortunate local people and coincided with an increase in new monthly subscribers during March and April.
What is Dublin Inquirer?
Image: Dublin Inquirer
Dublin Inquirer is a reader-supported local, independent newspaper aiming to provide quality coverage of Ireland’s capital city. It has a particular focus on local government, housing and homelessness, transport, jobs and working life and arts and culture. Recently, after consulting with readers, it decided to expand its coverage to focus on Ireland’s immigration system and the impact it has on migrants and immigrants living in Dublin.
Founded in 2015, Dublin Inquirer has three full-time permanent paid staff members and four part-time regular freelancers (three reporters who write a piece once every week or two and a one-day-a-week subeditor). It works with a dozen paid columnists and occasional freelancers, and can call upon two unpaid co-founders, who pitch in with everything from bookkeeping to reporting and editing. Together, the team publishes a weekly online edition and a monthly print edition with articles on local issues and events that other media are not covering.
With €80,000 of revenue over the past year, Dublin Inquirer is entirely reader-funded and carries no advertising. At the time of writing,1600 subscribers pay between €5 per month (digital only) and €8 a month (print and digital). Subscribers can also opt to become patrons and pay €10 or €20 a month. Patrons get the same benefits as subscribers, but pay more to help support the publication. Around half of those subscribers are digital-only and half get the print edition delivered to them by post. It also sells around 200 copies per month of the printed edition via a dozen newsstands across Dublin.
According to the Digital News Report Ireland 2019, paying for news is not widespread. Only 12% of readers in the country contribute to news organisations financially via subscriptions, donations and one-off payments, an increase of just 1% since 2018. Of those who do pay, just over half (51%) only have one subscription. Readers between 25–34 years old are the most likely to pay for online news (19%) while the 55–64 year age group is least likely to do so (7%).
Dublin Inquirer has what it calls ‘a leaky paywall’ where non-subscribers can access three articles for free per month before paying to access more content. If readers don’t want to subscribe straight away, they can sign up to the weekly newsletter, which has 2716 subscribers and an open rate of over 40%. The team also gives away free subscriptions to those who email saying that they can’t afford it: however, only a few people have taken them up on this offer.
On average, their website receives about 50,000 unique visits and 70,000 page views per month. In March, these figures doubled to approximately 100,000 uniques and over 150,000 page views. The numbers have returned to normal levels now. Their readers are almost entirely in Dublin, according to their digital analytics, although 10% live elsewhere in Ireland and 1% live abroad. Analytics for its Facebook page tells them that most followers are female (55%) and that the largest cohort of followers is 18–34-year-olds, followed by 35–44-year-olds. Although the team have never done any demographic research on their readers, they interact with them regularly through collaborative projects, surveys on what they want them to do, real-life meet-ups (before coronavirus) and Zoom town hall meetups.
How did Dublin Inquirer handle the COVID-19 crisis?
Co-founder Sam Tranum
When COVID-19 first hit Ireland, the team partnered with CivicTech.ie to build and launch a micro-site called Helping Neighbours. The idea came about when co-founder Sam Tranum noticed other people in Dublin trying to organise such volunteer initiatives on Twitter. Launched on 18 March, Helping Neighbours served as an online community notice board, where people and businesses could offer to run errands for people self-isolating, do pharmacy pick-ups for elderly locals or make food for health workers.
To help people understand how the directory would work, the team listed existing volunteers and small businesses that they already knew about on the site. Once the site went live, others were able to submit services by filling in an online form. This was then sent to Dublin Inquirer team for moderation before being posted online. Readers seeking help could add requests and both volunteers and businesses were encouraged to message these people to arrange whatever they needed. While over 100 offers of help were listed on the notice board, people were free to contact the volunteers directly so it is unclear how many people benefited from the initiative. There was nothing put in place to ensure people were not scammed but, as far as they know, this didn’t happen.
Post and responses from followers on Dublin Inquirer’s Facebook page.
In March, Dublin City Council sought to set up their own programme and contacted Dublin Inquirer to ask about their experience. The council was very supportive of the idea but were concerned about the vetting of volunteers, which Helping Neighbours admittedly did not have. By April, the board had fizzled out after the Irish government and Volunteer Ireland jointly announced a call for people to support their community using the I-VOL app. This programme is police vetted and has precautions in place when matching volunteers to local organisations responding to COVID-19.
The Helping Neighbours project generated a lot of traffic to Dublin Inquirer’s website and some of these users became paying subscribers. The team believes that the positive reaction to the noticeboard project may have helped. Dublin Inquirer usually attracts about 30 new net subscribers a month but this doubled during March and April 2020. Such a jump in subscriptions is in step with a wider industry trend — known as the ‘COVID-19 bump’ — that has seen media subscriptions in Europe and the United States increase by 80% and 100% respectively during the pandemic. The publication’s monthly recurring revenue is growing 30% year-on-year.
Image: Dublin Inquirer
Alongside the notice board, Dublin Inquirer has continued to report on community news that isn’t covered in other news outlets. This has meant utilising reporters’ existing contacts among local groups and digging for more offbeat stories, such as how the city’s artists are coping financially during the lockdown and how hostels are keeping COVID-19 rates down for the homeless. One of the most-read stories on the site since the pandemic looks at how tenants are experiencing mixed reactions from landlords when requesting rent relief. There’s also been coverage about Dublin City Council’s new plans for an extension of cycling infrastructure, larger bus lanes, and a new sustainable drainage system for rainwater.
Print editions of Dublin Inquirer were available in approximately a dozen stockists around the city prior to the pandemic, but these have all closed temporarily due to lockdown restrictions. This has led to some revenue loss. Subscribers were still sent print copies during this time. Overall, the publication has grown its revenue through subscription growth since the lockdown was put in place.
How has COVID-19 changed the future of Dublin Inquirer?
While they won’t continue the Helping Neighbours scheme after the pandemic, the team is glad they developed the digital infrastructure for such a message board. In the future, the team may use the underlying technology for other announcements or initiatives to help connect with readers. They believe they made the right decision to try and help locals, even if it was a small number of people that used the noticeboard. They were also happy to pull back and let others fill that space and provide services for the community.
Many other local newspapers in Dublin were advertising-funded and have closed either temporarily or permanently. For instance, Dublin Gazette temporarily stopped printing but switched to a digital version, while Dublin People Group declared bankruptcy. Totally Dublin stopped publishing as well. As a result of these developments, the team at Dublin Inquirer feels a responsibility to expand their coverage into new areas.
Following the award of a journalism grant from the European Journalism Centre, Dublin Inquirer will start covering immigration as a beat. It is currently in the process of hiring a freelancer who will lead the reporting (the deadline for applications is 16 June 2020). The choice for the new beat was decided after a survey was sent to readers asking them for their first, second and third choices. Respondents were then invited to four different Zoom focus group meetings to discuss their preferred topic. Out of the 363 people who voted, immigration received the largest number of first preferences votes (106). A beat on policing and community safety, and food were the other two vote-getters, after immigration.
Like many organisations that have been unable to host face-to-face events during the lockdown, the Dublin Inquirer team have switched to online video calls with readers using Zoom. These have gone well and they see themselves hosting more online events in the future. The team would like to mix up their event programme in the future and undertake digital as well as face-to-face meetups.
What have they learned?
Co-founder Lois Kapila
“We’ve learned that many of our readers are really engaged with their community, and want to help each other. It’s been quite heart-warming. It’s also been affirming to have a reader-funded model as things have been relatively stable financially during the pandemic. We’ve learnt that we don’t want to go back to advertising. This is a slower path, but it is the right path. There’s quite a lot of resilience with a subscription model. That is especially the case if we are heading into a recession.”